One could compose a review of Cathy Curtis’s disappointing A Splendid Intelligence: The Life of Elizabeth Hardwick just by quoting Curtis’s subject on the disappointments of literary biography. Here is Hardwick, one of the great American writers of the twentieth century, on the deadly tidying up of life’s vital messiness: “Biographers, the quick in pursuit of the dead, research, organize, fill in, contradict, and make in this way a sort of completed picture puzzle with all the scramble turned into a blue eye and the parts of the right leg fitted together.” Here she is on the biographer’s replacement of sensibility with brute industry: “Full-length biographies are a natural occupation for professors, for only they have the inclination to look at a life as a sort of dig.” Most brilliantly, here she is on a biography of Hemingway:
We have been told that no man is a hero to his valet. Professor Baker’s method makes valets of us all. We keep the calendar of our master’s engagements, we lay out his clothes, we order his wine, we pack the bags.… We get the dirty work and somebody else, somewhere, gets the real joy of the man, his charm, his uniqueness, his deeply puzzling inner life.
There is real joy in Elizabeth Hardwick’s essays, novels, and letters. There isn’t much to be found in Curtis’s A Splendid Intelligence. We keep the calendar of Hardwick’s engagements: when she went here, how she went there. We learn about her childhood in Kentucky (lazy summers and segregated movie theaters); we learn about her marriage (her husband, the poet Robert Lowell, didn’t like household chores); we learn about her early jobs (as a young woman, she “was hired to condense ‘very bad’ detective novels to about 128 pages, suitable for pulp fiction paperbacks”). But you don’t read a biography of a writer to be a valet. You read it to get access to the puzzling inner life of the writer and the writing. And we don’t get that here.
A Splendid Intelligence is not a bad book, though there are passages that Hardwick, a merciless critic, would not have let stand—for example, the biography’s final, vaporous sentence: “Spinning large and small observations out of inventive allusion and gossamer subtlety, she always required the reader to keep thinking along with her.” But Curtis does collect some excellent details. Late in life, “cable TV came to Castine,” the Maine town where Hardwick had a house. “Elizabeth had followed the cable installers in her car,” Curtis writes, “calling out, ‘Don’t forget me! I signed up early!’” Decades earlier, in 1958, Hardwick and Lowell planned a party. “Sixty-nine-year-old T. S. Eliot, now married to a woman less than half his age, was supposed to be the guest of honor at the Lowells’ dinner for eight in May, but a night of dancing with her gave him heart palpitations.” Eliot, that figure of poetic solemnity, boogying until his heart almost gives out: that’s good.
As Curtis notes, Hardwick is not interesting because of her marriage to Lowell. We care about her because of her own work: its distinctive style, its steely classicism heated by critical passion. Curtis quotes from Hardwick’s essays and summarizes their topics. But she doesn’t do what a biography of such a critic must do: tell us how the sentences work, how the intelligence becomes splendid on the page.
Hardwick had “a gift for pointed observation,” Curtis writes. But how were these pointed observations rendered? What were the particular rhythms of her mind? Curtis occasionally tries to give an account: “Elizabeth’s opinions typically rested on a series of discrete observations and unusual metaphors—the opposite of lawyerly prose that builds a case by marshaling increasingly weighty arguments.” That’s a bad description of lawyerly prose and an unhelpful explanation of Hardwick’s style. Her metaphors were unusual in what way, specifically? Well, for a writer who, in Joan Didion’s words, displayed such “exquisite diffidence” in her essays, Hardwick’s figurative comparisons were remarkably corporeal, even earthy. Take this description of Gertrude Stein: “When she is not tinkering, we can see her like a peasant assaulting the chicken for Sunday dinner. She would wring the neck of her words. And wring the neck of sentences, also.” You can take the essayist out of the South, but you can’t take the South out of the essayist. Elsewhere, Hardwick describes a series of clauses “as a smug little group of atoms, homogenized and pasteurized like milk in a bottle.” Worth noting, too, is Hardwick’s distinctive syntax: no critic used commas more interestingly, marching through a series of adjectives in the hopes of getting precisely the right description. A poem by Sylvia Plath “is done, completed, perfected”; Ibsen’s character, Hedda Gabler, is “finally just a series of gestures, isolated, drifting.”
In “Reflections on Fiction,” Hardwick writes, “To assert greatness does not give us the key; it is only the lock.” A Splendid Intelligence insists on Hardwick’s greatness, but fails to provide a key that could unlock it. Its “pointed observations” yield no real insight into its subject’s genius.
Elizabeth Hardwick’s life was, to use a favorite word of hers, interesting. (The word appears over eighty times in her Collected Essays, including when she talks about biography: “In the biographies of today, all things are equal except that the ill winds tend in interest to be—well, more interesting.”) Born in 1916, she grew up in Lexington, Kentucky, land of fast horses and great boredom, where you worshiped God and acted primly and, as she wrote in her 1979 autobiographical novel Sleepless Nights, longed for “the apotheosis of a local teaching certificate, a celestial and long-delayed reward for girls.” Hardwick went to the University of Kentucky—she studied with John Crowe Ransom and largely avoided the social scene—and then headed north to New York City. “The stain of place hangs on not as a birthright but as a sort of artifice, a bit of cosmetic,” the Hardwick-like narrator of Sleepless Nights writes. “I have no relations that I know of outside the South and hardly any living outside it even today. Nevertheless, I am afraid of the country night and its honest slumbers, uneasy even in the daylight with ‘original settlers’ and old American stock. The highway, the asphalt paths, the thieves, the contaminated skies like a suffocating cloak of mangy fur, the millions in their boroughs—that is truly home.”
In 1939, Hardwick started a PhD program at Columbia. She didn’t finish. Instead, she began writing stories and novels. (Her first two novels are little read these days, though 1955’s The Simple Truth is very good.) More importantly, she began writing criticism—elegant, intelligent essays on fiction and poetry and drama and politics that, decades later, remain of permanent value. In 1949, she married Robert Lowell. Their love began with literature: the two met at Yaddo, the writer’s retreat in Saratoga Springs where Lowell also met Flannery O’Connor. Their love ended with literature, too. In 1973, Lowell published a book of sonnets, The Dolphin, that quoted, without permission, letters that Hardwick sent him during their marriage’s painful final days. And through it all, she wrote and wrote: for the New Yorker, for Harper’s, but especially for the New York Review of Books, of which she was a co-founder. From the mid-century until her death in 2007, Hardwick helped shape America’s literary conversation.
Hardwick’s literary journalism required not only intelligence but also endurance: all those word counts to hit, all those deadlines to meet. (“Amiability and endurance,” she writes, “are the clues to moral courage.”) The figures she admired in her 1974 collection Seduction and Betrayal—Emily Brontë, Zelda Fitzgerald, Jane Carlyle—were figures of great willpower, meeting life’s impediments with “incredible energy and [a] longing for discipline.” Rereading Hardwick’s work, I’m struck by how often she takes on the unserious—by which I mean indolent—nature of academic life. In “The Classless Society,” she vaporizes a professor who grounds his identity in complaint: “When he was angry with a colleague, defeated in a committee meeting, dismayed by the poor preparation of the students, these experiences seemed to him to be his job.” Sleepless Nights describes another type with which all academics will be familiar: “The frozen intellectual,” that man—it’s usually a man—“whose intelligence was certain but whose destiny was a curling, warning question mark.” Years pass, sabbaticals are taken, and yet the big project never gets finished: “The ‘book’—a plaguing growth that does not itself grow, but attaches, hangs on, a tumorous companion made up of the deranged cells of learning, experience, thinking.”
A late short story, “The Bookseller,” describes a graduate student who “shuffled about in the text like a melancholy sheep in a pen.” Like Hardwick, the student studies seventeenth-century literature: “By the perverse authority of institutions he was brutally dragged by his light curls into the study of Milton, a poet not even very high in the regard of Eliot at the time. He wrote in the margins of The Student’s Milton: ‘C.f. Virgil,’ after one line; and ‘See Pliny the Elder,’ after another; and at the top of a page ‘Pythagoras was the only one who had heard the spheres’ music.” Academia wasn’t for Hardwick: too little style in the writing (the “light curls” are the detail of an artist, not a scholar), too little at stake in the arguments (all those c.f.’s and see’s).
Literary style and high moral stakes mattered more than almost anything else to Hardwick, and the two were often connected. One of my favorite lines comes from an essay she wrote on Virginia Woolf. In it, she starts off a paragraph like this: “I wonder about the ‘morality’ of certain marks of punctuation used by [Henry] James in ‘In the Cage.’” It takes a certain kind of critic to write that sentence; it takes another kind to convince you of its truth. In “In the Cage,” James has a poor young girl think about her difficult life and her mother’s alcoholism, feeling “rage at moments of not knowing how her mother did ‘get it.’” Hardwick writes, “‘Get it’ is alcohol, gin probably,” and, by putting this in quotes, James treats “real misery” as if it were a joke, the phrase an “affectation” on the girl’s part. “To put ‘get it’ in quotations is a moral failing,” Hardwick writes. “Even a second of an impoverished mother’s pursuit of gin cannot be put on the page in that way. It accomplishes only a stylistic diminishment of the possibility of pain, of real feeling.”
For Hardwick, style (how we hold and present ourselves in language) can’t be separated from morality (what we hold to be good or bad; what we believe must be taken seriously or not). If how we write tells us what we value, then quotes and commas and dashes become matters of moral concern. At one point, Curtis writes that Hardwick admired “the theater of ideas, works that present a sociopolitical argument.” But Hardwick wasn’t interested in a play’s “sociopolitical argument” because she didn’t think that was how art worked. Rather, she was concerned with how literary form suggests a moral stance—suggests, not presents; moral, not sociopolitical. Later, Curtis criticizes a review of Hardwick’s essay collection Bartleby in Manhattan. The reviewer, Hermione Lee, compared Hardwick to Flannery O’Connor, noting their shared “fierce, intelligent, disciplined, Southern Catholic distaste for sentimentality, lies, Northern liberalism and decadence.” Curtis doesn’t buy it. She claims that O’Connor’s letters display “cloying folksiness” (really?) and asks, “if Lee hadn’t known that Elizabeth grew up in the American South, would she have made this connection?” This isn’t the gotcha moment Curtis thinks it is.
In any case, Hermione Lee was absolutely right to stress Hardwick’s “moral strenuousness”—the sense we get when reading her that “a firm moral line is being taken,” that “moral tendencies are being recognized.” Hardwick read style morally and morality stylistically. That’s what great critics do, and Hardwick was one of the best.